House Majority Leader Dick Armey and other lawmakers are calling for congressional hearings in the wake of a report that accuses local governments across the country of endangering motorists and maximizing fines by shortening yellow-light cycles on traffic signals.
The study, first reported in yesterdays editions of The Washington Times, indicates that since 1985, yellow lights on traffic signals have been cut from an average duration of five seconds to three — and that fines generated by traffic cameras capturing drivers running the quick-changing signals has become a critical revenue source for local governments.
Rep. Dick Armey, who presented the study — “The Red Light Running Crisis — Is it Intentional?” — at a news conference yesterday, said the shortened yellow lights put motorists at risk, and he called the red-light cameras a violation of Americans privacy rights.
The Texas Republican called for hearings on the issue before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Mr. Armeys report focused on national trends, but an ongoing independent investigation by The Washington Times indicates the traffic signal problems are particularly chronic in the Washington area, where many jurisdictions have invested heavily in electronic monitoring of busy intersections.
Last fall, reporters at The Times counted 20 vehicles in 30 minutes — including a police cruiser — running a red light under the three-second yellow signal at Slaters Lane and the George Washington Memorial Parkway in Alexandria. Six months later, those two reporters watched for another half-hour as 21 vehicles got caught by the same quick-changing light.
The combination of short-cycling lights and unsynchronized signals along major thoroughfares leaves some Washington drivers fuming.
“Its not a good way to start your day off, being mad,” said Alan Phillips, a federal government worker from Centreville who, on a good day, sits in traffic for about 90 minutes to get to work in the District every morning. “You get upset and irritated even before you walk through your office door. Thats not right.”
Mr. Armeys report, according to Lon Anderson, a spokesman for the American Automobile Associations Mid-Atlantic division, verifies what many drivers in the gridlocked Washington region already know: Incorrectly programmed traffic signals are adding to danger on area roads.
Mr. Anderson said congressional hearings are a step in the right direction, and he urged Mr. Armey and other lawmakers to step in and set a national standard on the timing of traffic lights to discourage “unscrupulous” behavior by localities trying to profit off the use of red-light cameras.
“AAA strongly believes that law enforcement should never be a get-rich-quick scheme for local governments,” Mr. Anderson said.
Supporters of the red-light cameras in the Washington area, however, were skeptical.
Fairfax City Manager Robert Sisson and Alexandria Police Department spokeswoman Amy Bertsch — who work for two jurisdictions that have red light cameras — said the cameras help save lives and prevent injuries.
“Red means stop, a 4-year-old knows that,” Miss Bertsch said. “There is no greater invasion of privacy than getting broadsided by someone running a red light.”
Mr. Sisson said persons who are caught on the candid camera can contest their ticket and have their day in court.
“You still have the opportunity to go before a judge and plead your case,” Mr. Sisson said.
Richard Retting, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said Mr. Armeys report is making a federal issue out of what is really a local and state matter. “Most people in their community know what to expect when a yellow light turns yellow,” Mr. Retting said.
Mr. Rettings group estimates that about 260,000 crashes — and 800 deaths and 1,200 injuries — a year are caused by red-light violators.
At his news conference, Mr. Armey slammed communities using red-light cameras to fill their coffers.
“There seems to be a tendency to see the traffic camera as a revenue device as opposed to a traffic device,” he said.
And shortened yellow lights, he said, can lead to more crashes.
“As you shorten the yellow, you find people that are more rushed into what we would call panic stops,” Mr. Armey said. “And the panic stop, as we know by our own driving experience, is what creates the rear-end collisions.”
* Ellen Sorokin and Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.